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The forgotten battlefields of Tsavo

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BerichtGeplaatst: 09 Nov 2010 21:46    Onderwerp: The forgotten battlefields of Tsavo Reageer met quote

The forgotten battlefields of Tsavo

Few people today outside military historical circles know the extent to which East Africa was one of the bloodiest battlefields of the First World War pitting the British against the Germans.

The fighting was concentrated in the Taveta Enclave (modern day Taveta) in Tsavo West.

In the past three decades however, James Willson, a battlefield enthusiast and historian living in Diani, on Kenya’s South Coast, has been mapping the area’s history at the dawn of the 20th century out of personal fascination with past wars.
Accompanied by his family, Willson still roams the old battlefields finding the odd bullet, smoking pipe and rifle. His wife Eileen, recently found an old German cartridge during a hike.

In Latema, one of the two hills near Taveta, an unexploded 12 pounder shell from the First World War was found a few years ago.

It is the largest piece of battlefield debris to be found lately, apart from bits of shrapnel and shell casings that turn up periodically.

Now writing a book on the First World War-era in Kenya titled Guerrillas of Tsavo, Willson says, “The war is really an important part of Kenya’s pre-Independence history that many people are unaware of. If we are not careful, we will lose it.”

Willson is an accomplished tour guide through the expansive Tsavo West National Park. Battlefield tourism has a large worldwide following. “There is often a two-year waiting list to see the Boer battlefields in South Africa,” says Willson.

“Just as it is in Europe.” As Kenya’s tourism seeks new direction, this is one area waiting to be explored.
Tsavo West and Taveta

With the majestic Mount Kilimanjaro as the backdrop, Tsavo West and Taveta were the scenes of intense fighting during the early months of the First World War after Britain declared war on Germany on August, 4, 1914.

The following day, the governor of British East Africa, Sir Henry Belfield, advertised in The East African Standard (currently The Standard) that the Protectorate was also at war — pitting British East Africa (BEA) against German East Africa (GEA) — that is present day Kenya against present day Tanzania.

In reality, the war in Europe had nothing to do with Africa, but because of their imperial interests in the “new territories,” the British in BEA turned out in large numbers with their ponies and mules to guard the Uganda Railway (dubbed the Lunatic Line) against the Germans and the Schutztruppe next door.

The German Askaris under the command of Col Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck reacted 11 days later by advancing into BEA to take over the Taveta Enclave, 120 kilometres to the west of Voi and the Uganda Railway.

Defending the District Commissioner’s office in Taveta was acting DC Hugh La Fontain, who shot through a side window at the advancing German column, hitting Lt. Boelle, making him the first German casualty of the campaign.

Today, at the abandoned DC’s house, Willson points to the window through which the German was shot.

“The German Kaiser said the war would be over by Christmas but he forgot to say Christmas of which year,” jokes Willson, who has been exploring the terrain along the Kenyan-Tanzanian border for the forts and battlefields of the First World War.

However, the fight in Africa was a very calculated one — the Germans’ strategy was to keep the British Empire’s troops busy in Africa, thus depriving Britain of troops for their campaigns in Mesopotamia, the Dardanelles and Europe.

They also knew that destroying the railway would weaken the enemy — as it was the backbone of the Empire’s vast economy of the region.

Tsavo West National Park

Working as a lodge manager at the Salt Lick and Taita Hills Lodge back in the 1980s and with weekends to spare, Willson started to explore the First World War 1 battlefields using original wartime maps and correspondence.

At the best of times, the nyika or bundu is daunting. Driving through the desolate Tsavo West National Park, one gets the feel of what the area might have looked like a century ago.

It is an unforgiving terrain pockmarked with lava strewn hills, covered with dense thorn scrubs and dust bowls of red earth; the only water available is from the Tsavo River and the few springs thatfilter from the Chyulu Hills and Kilimanjaro, the most famous being Mzima Springs.

The place then teemed with all sorts of wild animals as attested to by the stories of the legendary man-eaters of Tsavo, not to mention ill-tempered rhinos and buffaloes and legions of venomous reptiles.

But with the Lunatic Express chugging its way across the drylands, it gave rise to towns like Samburu, Voi and Masongaleni, and the many settlements like Mwatate for the pioneering farmers who took to planting sisal, the “green gold” used in making ropes for the shipping industry.

Then came the war

Black and white sepia photographs show Mt Kilimanjaro with little snow just like it is today. Others show the hamlet of Maktau on the edge of Tsavo West filled with mud huts and tents and mountains of baled straw (to feed the bullocks that pulled the supply wagons), and where the first military airstrip in East Africa was built.

The photographs shows a busy military outpost in Maktau in 1915 where 20,000 Allied forces were stationed complete with armoured cars made by Leyland and Rolls Royce. The German soldiers called the Rolls Royce the Devi’s Rhinoceros.

In order to fortify the Maktau garrison against the Kaiser’s army and o resupply and reinforce British troops at the garrison, a new railway line was constructed in February 1915 between Voi and Maktau with Taveta as the terminus. Construction was put under the direction of the Royal Engineers using mainly Taita and Indian workers.

To a newcomer, the solitary hill some 25km south of Ziwani Voyager Camp looks ordinary — until Willson tells its story. The local people call it Salaita, a corruption of the English word “slaughter.”

It was the scene of the bloody Battles of Salaita etween the British Empire forces and the Germans in February and March of 1916.

The Germans occupied the hill in 1914 because it was a primeobservation point — being the only hill in the open plains between Kilimanjaro and the Pare Hills.

“The Germans reinforced the strategically located hill to prevent the British advancing into German East Africa,” says Willson.

The overall British commander, Gen Jan Smuts, later president of South Africa, was warned; “Do not shell the Germans trenches half way up the hill. The trenches that they are manning in force are at the bottom of the hill.”

But Smuts disregarded the advice and on February 12, 1916 the 2nd South African nfantry Brigade led by Brig Gen Beeves bombarded the hill with heavy artillery.

When the troops reached the base of the lava hill, the Germans advanced unscathed from behind the lower trenches amid a devastating hail of fire.

The other German soldiers who had lured them into the trap, simply ran round the hill to safety. About 138 South African troops were killed as they withdrew.

In confusion the Baluchi soldiers on their left flank fought on with the Rhodesians on the frontline covering the South Africans who had turned around to flee.

The Baluchis later wrote a letter to the South African commander asking them, “… do not call us Hottentots; we saved your asses.”

It’s an easy walk up Salaita Hill today over sharp lava stones and through the thorny commiphora and acacia trees past the dummy trench half way up the hill that would have been about a metre high forming a trench line built of tightly packed stones, still sturdy but reduced to about 60 centimetres high.

On the summit, are a few more relics and the foundations of a fort. The Maasai guide, Lekatoo ole Parmitoro picks out bricks among the rubble – some inscribed with letters E, U, H, L and D.

“It could spell Deutschland,” she says.

Below, are the sprawling, red earth plains of Tsavo. The park stretches to the horizon, Grogan’s Castle (Grogan of Cape-to-Cairo fame, who marched the length of Africa to prove himself worthy of a woman) stands on the top of a distant hill towards Lake Jipe.

The surrounding hamlets slumber under the merciless sun while the Maasai women go about their daily chores of collecting firewood in the nyika and selling their beaded trinkets to the occasional tourist.

Wizened centuries-old baobabs still stand, among them the “Sniper Tree” where local legend has it that a German woman by the name Mama Sukurani hid and shot at the British soldiers to avenge the death of her husband, killed during the disastrous British seaborne invasion of Tanga in November 1914.

The story is told of how she vowed vengeance on the British. The ancient tree is pockmarked with the bullet holes of nearly a century ago.

But the truth from historical reports is that after her husband, Tom von Prince, was killed (Tom was nicknamed Sukurani on account of his fierce temperament when fighting) she returned to their farm on the Usambara mountains in GEA,where the farm exists till today.

However, reluctant Empire soldiers going out on patrol were often warned to be alert at all times since Mama was around and waiting to shoot at them.

We drive past Mahoo on the way to Taveta, where a pillbox can be seen on a pair of volcanic ash cones straddling the road across the old slave route from Taveta to Voi.

The story goes that it’s a German pillbox — a sturdy stone mini fort — but Willson is of the opinion that it could have been built and used by missionaries as a lookout and a hiding place during the closing years of the 19th century.

A little church on the other side of the road was built some time later. It was in this area that the thriving religious community in Taveta in 1897 established the first printing press and a weekly newspaper called The Taveta Chronicle that ran for several years. During the war, both hills were fortified with an extensive defensive trench system dug around them.

In Taveta proper, we drive by the now decrepit stone house where von Lettow-Vorbeck had his headquarters and on to the two well-manicured cemeteries with graves of the fallen soldiers — which are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission — overlooked by an enormous Cross of Sacrifice.

The neatly laid tombstones are sorrounded by lush pink flowers of the desert rose and show the regimentt, names and ages of the soldiers, many as young as 18 and 19 years.

A few metres away, are the Indian War Cemetery, with a stone memorial inscribed in Urdu, Gurmukhi and Hindi paying homage to the brave soldiers who fought for their Emperor.

“There are more than 20 such sites associated with the First World War around the Taita-Taveta area,” says Willson.

He’s excited by his latest “discovery” in March of a German fort on what was called Hill 931. So far he and his wife Eileen and daughter have traced 10 forts — three on Tsavo Ranch at Mt Kasigau and Pika Pika and others located on the Tsavo River are Mzima, Crater and Tembo Forts and at Tsavo River Bridge and one near Serena’s Kilaguni Lodge, in Tsavo West National Park.

There are also interesting battle sites at Mbuyuni, Serengeti, Salaita, Challa, Mahoo, Latema and Reata Hills around Taveta.

The site of Voyager Ziwani the beautiful tented lodge facing Mawenzi, one of Kilimanjaro’s three peaks, was once a garrison for the German Schutztruppe.

Of note is that 25 per cent of the African population at the turn of the 20th century was employed in various military activities, mainly in the carrying of supplies to the troops in a unit known as the Carrier Corps, also known as “Kariakoo,” (to date, one of Voi town’s oldest settlement is called Kariakoo in living memory of the town’s role in the great wars).

Initially, most of the troops fighting for the British Army were from India, arriving in 1914 with two Indian Expeditionary Forces to bolster the local volunteers and the Kings African Rifles, until they were substantially reinforced by a South African Expeditionary Force that arrived in January 1916 under Gen Smuts.

To find out more about the battlefields of the First World War around Taveta and Tsavo email

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BerichtGeplaatst: 19 Nov 2012 13:43    Onderwerp: Reageer met quote

'An illustrated diary of a forgotten campaign in East Africa 1914-1916'

Following the military operations, as well as the personal endeavors of the troops, porters and their followers, Guerrillas of Tsavo describes the first 22 months of the First World War in the Mombasa-Voi Command in British East Africa (Kenya).

The German Schutztruppe, under the leadership of Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck - the only undefeated German general of the First World War, engaged a far larger Empire and Allied army and occupied the only British territory during the entire First World War - Taveta, Tsavo West National Park and down along the frontier to the Indian Ocean.

The Empire forces faced high rates of attrition, not from fighting but from the hostile environment of wild animals, snakes, heat, thirst, malnutrition, caused by long lines of communication, malaria and other tropical diseases.

Guerrillas of Tsavo brings to light the extensive part played by East Africa, in particular the communities of Taveta, Tsavo and the south coast in shaping the course of Kenya’s history.
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BerichtGeplaatst: 19 Nov 2012 17:30    Onderwerp: Reageer met quote

The feet and arms of WW1

Posted Monday, November 12 2012 at 20:00
The memories of these gallant men is commemorated in form of the World War Memorial statues and Pillar along Kenyatta Avenue, Nairobi, in honour of “native troops” and “our glorious dead” who perished during both World wars
Carrier Corps were thus crucial full-colons in the narrative of resistance
Kariakor areas in Nairobi, Mombasa and Dar-es-Salaam were the Kiswahili corruption of “Carrier Corps”

Armistice (or Remembrance) Day was marked on Sunday in Commonwealth countries to mark the end of World War I, but only a few relatives of Carrier Corps ever mark it in the scattered war cemeteries in Kenya.

The memories of these gallant men is commemorated in form of the World War Memorial statues and Pillar along Kenyatta Avenue, Nairobi, in honour of “native troops” and “our glorious dead” who perished during both World wars.

The statutes were erected after 1918 and re-erected after the World War II ended in 1945. Lawyer Pheroze Nowrojee, writing in a local daily this time last year, lamented that “our politicians pay no attention to it (Armistice Day.)

They think we have nothing to do with it. It was the white man’s war. It was their war. But 44,500 black Kenyans died in it. That is not for nothing. The dead and others who survived, were in the Carrier Corps, a critical component in the logistics of the war.”

Indeed, they served as frontline porters, machine gun, ammunition and stretcher carriers who also dug drains, built bridges, made roads, erected huts and repaired the railway line. Others were drafted as interpreters, armed scouts, dressers, ward orderlies, cooks and personal servants in the “porters war”.

They had no uniform. Or boots. Their efforts were plagued by food shortages, inadequate medical care, pay hitches, mistreatment and harsh physical conditions.

In Kariakor: The Carrier Corps, historian Geoffrey Hodges notes that they were “vital as soldiers, carriers and intelligence agents”. “Without their participation,” he writes, “the European war effort would have been in vain.” After the war, Carrier Corps returned by train, boat and ox-carts, looking gaunt and dazed.

Their knowledge of field guns, firearms, ammunition and communication gadgets and rudimentary military tactics later came in handy in fighting the Imperial Army during Kenya’s war of independence.

Carrier Corps were thus crucial full-colons in the narrative of resistance. This is our tribute to these gallant soldiers of the nation, for, were it not for them, we (probably) wouldn’t be:

Strong, but not fat

The First World War ended on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour of 1918. The colonial government needed tens of thousands of foot soldiers, the so-called “feet and arms of the army”, who were selected among strong — but not fat — ones, and who then walked to Nairobi to become Carrier Corps in a war whose trigger, the assassination of an archduke in remote Europe, they couldn’t have cared two hoots about, let alone understand.


Kariakor areas in Nairobi, Mombasa and Dar-es-Salaam were the Kiswahili corruption of “Carrier Corps”. The Nairobi Carrier Depot was the staging area, centre of pay, administration and medical examination hub.

£5,600 (Sh761,600 at current exchange rates) was the unspent balance from the East African War Relief Fund earmarked for a medical college in Kikuyu and completed in 1926. It later became the Alliance Boys High School.

The ‘feet and arms of the army’

Be they special porters, carriers or casual labourers, Africans were conscripted through the Native Followers Recruitment Ordinance of 1915. Here is how Kenyan regions contributed the drafted.

A Remembrance Poppy

Has been used since 1920 to commemorate soldiers who died in the War.

Nyanza County has men who are biologically muscular and Col Ewart Grogan wrote to John Ainsworth, the PC of Nyanza, saying that “the porters you have sent are simply invaluable”.

Ainsworth, after whom Ainsworth Primary School in Nairobi is named, was the “best rag tag recruit”, the “ablest administrator in the Protectorate” who mused some of Nairobi’s impossible by-laws when he was promoted and transferred to the capital as Chief Native Officer.


Karen Blixen’s former cook was threatened with conscription to the Carrier Corps if he didn’t return to her former employer, the wife of a civil servant.

He fled and returned after the war ended. And the story goes that a Kisumu DC had a headman he hated drafted to the war.

The Maasai

No moran was conscripted to the Carrier Corps as the community chose to give livestock to feed the troops — who fed on beef and biscuits. This gave them a reason for cattle rustling across borders.

The Giriama and the Duruma

These two Mijikenda sub-tribes adept at using poisoned arrows and bravely resisted taxation and conscription as they were recovering from “the famine of the maize bags” of 1899.

The colonial government’s “fine” of 1,000 porters led to the Giriama Uprising, fronted by Mekatilili wa Menza, in 1913. While in jail, Mekatilili executed two prison breaks.

Praise for ‘gallant porters’

“With scant discipline, they have proved themselves on more than one occasion to be stout-hearted fellows and cheerful in adversity…. What some of these gallant porters have suffered will never be known.”

— Ruthless colonial officer Richard Meinertzhagen, in a letter.

Meinertzhagen mounted a spirited resistance against Kikuyu warriors who had ambushed an Arab caravan in 1902. The victory led the British to put up an outpost on a little hill that the residents called Kia-Nyiri, hence the name Nyeri, which later become a town.

In 1904, he wrote in his diary that people in Central Kenya “will be the most susceptible to subversive activities. They will be one of the first tribes to demand freedom from European influence and in the end cause a lot of trouble”.

Meinertzhagen also caused the Nandi Rebellion when he lured spiritual leader Koitalel Arap Samoei to sign a truce, only to shoot him while shaking hands in October 1905.

The Nandi were protesting against British occupation and the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway through their land.

In Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T E Lawrence describes Meinertzhagen — an accomplished cattle-rustler — as someone who was...

“...willing to harness evil to the chariot of good…. His instincts were abetted by an immensely powerful body and a savage brain.”

How the whole bloody thing started

“One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans,” Otto von Bismarck, the ruler of Germany, once remarked.

Twenty-six years later, Franz Ferdinand, the heir of the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo by Gavril Princip, a Serbian in June 28, 1914 after the Austro-Hungarian imperial forces invaded Serbia.

Serbia sought help from Russia. Germany attacked Russia and France, invading neutral Belgium in order to reach France. France declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Via a treaty, Britain had a moral obligation to protect France and Belgium and declared war on Germany.

By August 1, the World War I got bare knuckled when, honouring a treaty with Britain, Japan attacked the German-controlled port of Tsingtao (now Qingdao) in China.

The USA and Italy also joined what went down as one of the costliest conflicts in cash, scale and casualty. British dominions and colonies got involved, offering military labour to British troops.

That was how 160,000 Kenyans were conscripted as carriers as Britain battled the Germans commanded by the cunning Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck in the present Tanzania and far-flung outposts in Ethiopia.

11/11/ 11

The hour, date and month when the Armistice was signed to end World War I between the Allies and Germany at Compiegne, France in 1918.

Rise of Harry Thuku’s bravado

The carriers who survived had to be paid their dues by the colonial administration, but they had to identify themselves for record purposes.

The Native Registration Ordinance of 1916 introduced the kipande for that purpose. Former Kenyan carriers opposed it, alongside the imposition of hut and poll taxes.

They were also a bitter lot as British soldiers were gifted with land while Kenyan servicemen were ignored. Most had their gratuity pending. Life was becoming economically harsh after the Indian Rupee was replaced by the stronger Shilling. Labour demands were cut by a third and agriculture production declined.

A baraza was convened in Dagoretti and a memorandum signed to press for resolution of the above issues.

Freedom fighter Harry Thuku forwarded the grievances to Britain instead of the colonial administration. He was arrested and detained for nine years in Kismayu in 1922.

A protest meeting of his arrest led to the shooting of demonstrators outside the Central Police Station. Thuku’s followers founded the Kikuyu Central Association, which sent Kenyatta to England to present their grievances.
Influence on a ‘primitive’ people

Change of tune

The Carrier Corps returned to their homes with not only scars and experiences of war, but also concertinas, harmonicas and accordions whose capacity for step-and-dance rhythm ushered in the Mwomboko dance among the Kikuyu in the 1920s.

The accordion’s reign lasted up to the 1940s due to its sturdy construction and portability, before servicemen during World War II returned with guitars.

Khaki shorts

The carriers returned clad in khaki shorts. That is how, when they later became chiefs, headmen... and on to District Commissioners... after independence, the short trousers became their uniform.

Kenya Defence Forces Old Comrades Association

This is an offshoot of The British Legion African Section that was established for the welfare of ex-servicemen of both World Wars.

The Legion was abolished and renamed The Kings African Rifles and East African Forces Old Comrades Association in 1960.

A meeting at the Kenya Army Headquarters resolved to re-name it The Kenya Defence Forces Old Comrades Association in 1961.

The “Old” in the name was omitted as active servicemen are members too. The Kenya Defence Forces Comrades Association has 21,858 registered members, according to the Ministry of State for Defence.

Lady Northey Dispensary, State House Road

Was named after the wife of Edward Northey, a Lieutenant Colonel in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps when World War I broke out.

He was later appointed Governor of British East Africa Protectorate, which became Kenya in 1920.
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Eric '14-'18

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BerichtGeplaatst: 06 Dec 2014 14:49    Onderwerp: Reageer met quote

Vandaag in de Stentor, krant, stond een klein artikeltje in over dat men in Kenia een monument over WO1 wil hebben.
Ben even wezen googlen erover en vond alleen dit artikel op de BBC pagina
In a foreign field he lay. Lonely soldier, unknown grave. On his dying words he prays. Tell the world of Paschendale.
lyrics: Iron Maiden
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